Vortigern Studies

What's New I Sitemap I Bibliography I Vortigern I Vortigern Studies l Wansdyke I POLLS I LINKS l Sitemaster I FAQs
about Vortigern Studies l Games I Arthurian Collection I View Guestbook I Sign Guestbook l Webrings

  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Procopius

Vortigern Studies Index



The Sources
click here

Procopius of Caesarea
(mid-sixth century AD)
Robert Vermaat

Procopius of Caesarea was born in the latter years of the fifth century at Caesarea in Palestine. He originated from the land-owning provincial upper class and, like Zosimus, became a civil servant. As early as A.D. 527, before the emperor Justin's death, Procopius became counsellor, assessor, and secretary to Belisarius, whose fortunes and campaigns he followed for the next twelve or fifteen years. Small wonder he became very knowledgeable of military affairs through this service. He has long been respected as a historian of the emperor Justinian’s wars, and in fact he is reckoned the greatest of the later Greek historians. Procopius was finally raised to the dignity of an illustrius, and died not earlier than A.D. 562.

Procopius presents us with an eyewitness's description of Belisarius's wars, in eight books. Of these, two deal with the Persian War. The two books that deal with the Vandalic war relate how Belisarius defeated the last Vandal king in North Africa and retakes this old Roman province. Three books deal with the Gothic wars, they tell a similar tale of Belisarius’ competent generalship in the retaking of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Book VIII concludes with a general survey of events down to A.D. 554. Procopius wrote in the Greek used by most educated people and writers of the late Roman Empire. Procopius also wrote a book about the buildings erected by Justinian in the city of Constantinople; in fact he attributed most building in the eastern Empire to Justinian! The writing is filled with heroic sounding statements, lofty proclamations, and an incredible amount of flattering language in descriptions of those in power. An account written in this style was known as a panegyric.

His second book, though, is in quite a different style. This is the Anecdota, which is characterized as "a satirical attack on Justinian", but which is most commonly known by the title of Arcana Histora (the Secret History). It is a supplement to the other history, carrying the narrative down to the year 558-9, where it breaks off. Into it, as into the pages of a private journal, Procopius pours his detestation of Justinian and Theodora; even Belisarius and his wife are not spared. Here Procopius shows that he was not a run-of-the-mill historian that only wanted to please his superiors and patrons. It is a bitter attack, sometimes malignant, often obscene complaint against all the powers of the Byzantine Church and State.

This book has repulsed some readers, who take it as the tardy revenge of an ill-conditioned man of letters for a lifetime of servitude. Others however have recognozed the intimate knowledge that Procopius apparently had of the intrigues at court. The book betrays the writer's passionate indignation, painting Justinian and Theodora as he does in the blackest colours of infamy. He describes Justinian as treacherous and incapable of being faithful to any friend, bending or breaking his own laws to suit any purpose he might have.

Procopius saves his most bitter invective for two women. The empress Theodora he describes as the most dishonourable and treacherous people on the face of the Earth, always betraying their friends and supporters and condemning innocent men and women to exile, death, or dungeon. The other is Antonia, Belisarius' cheating wife. He openly accuses both of them of being prostitutes and goes on to provide some quite graphic descriptions of the deeds he accuses them of. Nor is Procopius kind to his boss, Belisarius, under which he served as a personal secretary. While other historians describe Belisarius as a strong, intelligent leader of the Roman armies and a hero to the empire, Procopius describes him as a cowardly yes-man, totally at the mercy of his own wife and the imperial couple, who manipulate and abuse him until he is of no further use to him. Procopius tells us that Belisarius, like Justinian, was completely under in the power of his wife, afraid to displease her in any way.

Historians are still puzzled why Procopius wrote so favourably about Justinian, then wrote the scandals in 'The Secret History', and then wrote glowing accounts of Justinian’s accomplishments again. It may well be that this work could not be published during the reign of Justinian and was only published after both Justinian died. The Anecdota was not published until the seventeeth century due to its contents.


Procopius' knowledge about the goings-on at court gave him information about Britain as well. This originated with a Frankish embassy (ca 553) to Constantinople, accompanied by some Angles, possibly from Britain. Procopius' information might thus be hearsay and personal comment, but there is a possibility that, because of enough plausible detail, it was based on serious evidence. The strange stories about Hadrian's Wall might have come from these Angles, who lived close enough to hear tales like that, but not close enough to refute them. Also, Belisarius is said to have offered the Goths Britain in return for Spain. Though this might be seen as a thinly veiled insult, maybe Justinian really believed that he had a claim to Britain.

Procopius’ information on Britain is confused and scattered. In the ‘Secret History’, he describes how Justinian distributes diplomatic payments to the ‘barbarian’ peoples, but whether the included Britons are the former provincials or the invading Anglo-Saxons is unclear. In the ‘Wars’, he describes the usurper Constantine III as ‘ a man of no Mean station’, which contradicts the derogatory comments by earlier writers:

Bellum Vandalicum 3.2.31
The island of Britain revolted from the Romans, and the soldiers there chose as their leader Constanti(n)us, a man of no mean station. And he straightaway gathered a fleet of ships and a formidable army and invaded both Spain and Gaul with a great force, thinking to control these countries.

Procopius is also one of the sources who claim that Britain was never reoccupied by the Romans:

Bellum Vandalicum 3.2.38
Alaric died of disease, and the army of the Visigoths ... marched into Gaul, and Constantine, defeated in battle by Honorius, died with his sons. However the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants.

More confusion and conflict has arisen about Procopius’ geographical comments about Britain, which information he based upon the Frankish mission to Constantinople, which included some Angles to substantiate the Frankish claim of overlordship over ‘Brittia’. However, Procopius names the island first as either Brittia or Britannia:

History of the Wars 8.20.4-5
The island of Brittia lies in the this the northern ocean, not far from the shore, rather about two hundred stades away, approximately opposite the mouths of the Rhine; and it is between Britannia and the island of Thule. Whereas Britannia lies towards the West [of Brittia?] opposite the extremities of the land of the Spaniards, separated frpm the mainland [of the Spaniards] by about four thousand stades, no less, Brittia on the other hand faces the rear of Gaul, the parts of it facing the ocean – clearly, to the north of Spain and Britannia.

But with Brittia and Britannia, this leaves us with one Britain too many. Was Procopius simply confused by information from the Franks and from Spain, which he failed to recognise as dealing with the same island, but from a different direction? Or did he indeed have two different islands in mind? Then he mentions the population of Brittia:

History of the Wars 8.20.6-10
Three very populous nations inhabit the Island of Brittia, and one king is set over each of them. And the names of these nations are Angles, Frisians, and Britons who have the same name as the island. So great apparently is the multitude of these peoples that every year in large groups they migrate from there with their women and children and go to the Franks. And they [the Franks] are settling them in what seems to be the more desolate part of their land, and as a result of this they say they are gaining possession of the island. So that not long ago the king of the Franks actually sent some of his friends to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, and despatched with them the men of the Angles, claiming that this island [Britain], too, is ruled by him. Such then are the matters concerning the island called Brittia.

This we could recognise as a possible backlash from the British victory at Badon, and the British migrations to Brittany, albeit garbled into a folktale. The Franks could well have been meaning to gain control of Armorica/Brittany. This is followed by an account of Hadrians Wall:

History of the Wars 8.20.42
...men of olden times built a long wall, cutting off a large portion of it [Brittia]

So is Brittia Britain? If so, where lies Britannia?

There have been several solutions, apart from a mistake by Procopius (or by his sources), as to the solution of this riddle.

  • As mentioned above, it is possible that Britain had retreated into such obscurity among the European nations, that knowledge of the island itself had become confused and semi-legendary, so that a 'ghost-Britain' was created. Even Procopius (with his military knowledge) failed to recognise to construction of Hadrian's Wall as Roman! This might be confirmed by Procopius when he (admittedly unbelieving) describes Britain (Brittia) as an island where the souls of the dead are ferried to. This was in fact an ancient British myth, so Brittia = Britannia?
  • An alternative is that Britain is Brittia, but Britannia refers to Armorica, possible because it is not specifically referred to as an island, whereas Brittia is. Against this, Procopius referred to Britain in earlier chapters constantly as Britannia, while no one else has called it Brittia. Armorica, on the other hand, has never been called by either name before, so if correct, this would be the first time anyone referred to ‘Brittany’. This might be the best optoin, since the Franks were not really in a position to dominate Britain by 553, but on the other hand, at that time had indeed started the subjugation of Brittany.
  • A third option, though rather more remote, is that somehow Brittia really refers to Jutland! This would make more sense of all references about Anglii, Varni, Frissones and Franks, but the Brittones would clearly be the odd ones out.

In fact, the information we derive from Procopius cannot be relied upon as certain in any way. One the one hand his information is clearly second-hand, but possible reliable, which he shows with a Britain-related story, the ‘Bride of Radigis’, about a sister (unnamed) of an Anglian king (unnamed as well) that was betrothed to but subsequently dumped by Radigis, king of the Varni, which led to an expedition of revenge:

History of the Wars 8.20.26
She accordingly collected four hundred ships immediately and put on board them an army of not fewer than one hundred thousand fighting men, and she in person led forth this expedition against the Varni.

As we can see, Procopius was no strong in numbers as each ship in this (earliest genuine English historical romance) must have carried 250 soldiers, which was not possible at the time. In this tale, Brittia is no further away from the Varni (across the Rhine) than one night and a day of rowing, which would strengthen its identification with Britain.

On the other hand, Procopius had no means (or interest) to check his sources at all. Though Procopius was indeed sceptical about the ghost-story mentioned above, he had no qualms about including this fantasy:

History of the Wars 8.20.42-8
Now in this island of Britain the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it.  For to the south of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter. But on the north side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own.  And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightway. They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.

So what to do with Procopius’ accounts? Though obviously he had formidable problems with transmission, translation (the Angles would hardly have spoken Greek or Latin, perhaps not even Frankish), not to mention distance, Procopius had to deal with the possible influence of Byzantine and Frankish propaganda as well. Considering this, the more fantastic elements in his account speak for themselves. Though he presents us with an invaluable insight about Byzantine ideas about Britain, we should rather treat his history as a wonder-tale, and value the historical details accordingly.

There are several exerpts from Procopius' books online:

Internet Medieval SourcebookProcopius: The Secret History (full text)

Procopius: History of the Wars (full text)

For a much more complete listing of links to Procopius on the internet, see 'Justinian, Theodora and Procopius, a web directory about 6th-century Byzantium and its greatest historians', at: http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/justinian/.


  • Jones, Michael E. (1996): The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell).*
  • Procopius: The Secret History, ed. and trans. G.A. Williamson, (Penguin Classics, St. Ives 1981).*
  • Prokop (Procopius): Perserkriege, ed. and trans. Otto Veh, (Ernst Heinemann, München, 1970).
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1980): Procopius on Brittia and Britannia, in: Classical Quarterly 30, pp. 498-507.*
  • Wood, Ian N. (1984): The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 1-26.*

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved